Native Sun News: Tribal members rally against uranium mine

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Kyle native Sara Jumping Eagle and her daughter Tokata Iron Eyes demonstrated against proposed aquifer mining for uranium at permit hearings in Rapid City on Sept. 23. Photo by/Talli Nauman

Mesteth challenges uranium proposal
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor


Rapid City — Tribal members joined other Black Hills area residents who rallied and testified in a week of state hearings ending Sept. 27 about a permit request for South Dakota’s first in-situ uranium mining and yellow-cake processing plant.

Oglala Sioux Tribe Historic Preservation Officer Wilmer Mesteth’s testimony challenged the project on the basis of ancestral claims and legal issues. “The numbers and density of cultural resources at the site proposed for mining demonstrate that the mining activity is likely to adversely impact the cultural resources of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” said Mesteth in testimony submitted regarding the application for a large-scale mining permit.

The local Clean Water Alliance, representing some of the dozens of interveners in the contested case hearings, submitted Mesteth’s written statement to the Board of Mining and Environment for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources hearings.

Native American musicians, including award-winning flautist Cody Blackbird and the Pine Ridge drum group Oyuh'pe, led a “Keep Our Water Clean and Our Hills Green” pep rally concerning the project at the Dahl Arts Center on Sept. 22, the eve of the hearings’ first day.

“It’s pretty sad when we have to fight for a basic human right like clean water,” Blackbird said, launching into the “Uranium Blues” with lyrics by accompanying local bassist Mike Reardon.

The permit promoter Powertech (USA) Inc. seeks rights to 551 gallons per minute of Madison Aquifer water and 8,500 gallons per minute of Inyan Kara Aquifer water.

“This is ludicrous,” remarked Native American archeologist Ben Rhodd, during the musical event sponsored by the Dakota Rural Action Black Hills Chapter at the Dahl Arts Center. “We don’t have that much water. What are our children and grandchildren going to do?” he asked.

The Rapid City Council failed in a request to be admitted as an intervener in the case, then appealed the decision on the basis of environmental concerns over the Rapid City municipal water supply. The council has passed a resolution against Powertech’s proposal because the city’s water comes from the Madison Aquifer.

The Mining and Environment Board decision to limit public comment to two hours during the scheduled full week of hearings sparked a protest demonstration in the hours leading up to the proceedings that opened on Sept. 23.

Powertech, (USA) Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Canadian penny-stock holding company Powertech Uranium Corp., has offered 99 construction jobs for the project’s first year, with employment tapering off afterward in the 20-year aquifer-mining endeavor. The proposed location is the 10,000-acre Dewey-Burdock tract near Edgemont, in Custer and Fall River counties, adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation and upstream from both the Pine Ridge and the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

“The lands encompassed by the Powertech proposal are within the territory of the Great Sioux Nation, which includes the band of the Oglala Lakota (Oglala Sioux Tribe) aboriginal lands,” Mesteth noted. “As a result, the cultural resources, artifacts, sites, etc. belong to the tribe,” his written statement said.

Powertech, in its initial Environmental Report to the federal government, stated that impacts to cultural resources would be “none.” The federal Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) released in 2013 described the project’s largest effect as that involving the cultural resources.

Eighteen sites in the project area are eligible or potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to Powertech’s state large-scale mining application. Innumerable others remain to be cataloged.

“Avoidance of 12 of these sites is possible during the construction phase and, therefore, no impacts are anticipated,” the DSEIS noted. “Avoidance and mitigation, such as fencing and data recovery excavations, are recommended for the remaining six.

“In addition, avoidance is recommended for two unevaluated historic burial sites located in proximity to proposed construction activities” pending further studies. “Avoidance and mitigation is also recommended for four unevaluated sites” located within 250 feet of proposed well fields or mine waste water discharge areas,” federal records indicate.

Mesteth objected to the exclusion of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from the study. “The failure to involve the tribe in the analysis of these sites, or to conduct any ethnographic studies in concert with a field study further exacerbate the impacts on the tribe's interests as a procedural matter in negatively affecting the tribe's ability to protect its cultural resources,” he contended.

Clean Water Alliance failed in a motion to delay the proceedings until after pending federal permit rulings by the EPA and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Those agencies must afford government-to-government consultation between U.S. and tribal officials for this project, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, National Historic Preservation Act, National Environmental Protection Act, and others laws.

Powertech failed in a motion to exclude interveners’ documents from consideration by the Mining and Environment Board. The board determined that eligibility of documents would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The company and the South Dakota State Archeologist signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in September 2008, establishing “procedures to avoid or mitigate potential effects on archaeological and historic sites” in accordance with state law.

Assistant State Archaeologist Michael Fosha contracted Augustana College in Sioux Falls to conduct studies in 2007 and 2008, which identified 217 sites, 81 of which were yet to be evaluated, according to state records.

Powertech mentioned only 190 in the Environmental Report, Mesteth complained. “This discrepancy and the failure of a full evaluation of some 81 sites within the proposed mining area evidence a potentially serious failure to conduct a proper cultural resources study,” he said.

The company has promised the federal government that it “will administer a historic and cultural resources inventory before engaging in any development activity not previously assessed by NRC or any cooperating agency.”

It “will immediately cease any work resulting in the discovery of previously unknown cultural artifacts. Any such artifacts will be inventoried and evaluated, and no further disturbance will occur until authorization to proceed has been received.

“Any disturbances also will be addressed in compliance with Powertech (USA)’s MOA with the South Dakota State Archeologist and any future MOAs,” the company has pledged. The “future” agreements include those contemplated with tribal governments.

Mesteth argued, “The United States government has assured that the cultural resources of a tribe will be protected, even when they are not within reservation boundaries. The discovery of an Indian camp and prehistoric artifacts in the tribe's treaty and aboriginal territory at issue in this application implicates important tribal interests such that the tribe's rights are threatened by the applicant's mining activity in its aboriginal territory.”

For example, he said, Oglala Sioux Tribe member Garvard Good Plume, his great grandfather, his mother and his father used, dwelled upon, and camped on the lands subject to the Powertech mining proposal. His grandparents and their relatives were buried there.

“The tribe cannot verify that a comprehensive study identifying all such resources has been adequately conducted. No such study has been conducted by the tribe,” Mesteth claimed.

Archeologist Rhodd identified “significant defects” in Augustana’s cultural survey, including the failure to conduct an inquiry into or an evaluation of the ethnographic information available for the site. He noted that “this information includes consultation with members of the indigenous community, the elders who have been living in the area, medicine people, oral historians, and others who are familiar with the area.

The acreage within the proposed permit boundary is mostly private land. About 240 acres are administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. In addition, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and counties own railroad and county road lands in the project area.

(Contact Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor of Native Sun News at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

Join the Conversation